Our methodology is mainly inspired by the Socratic maieutic, where the philosopher questions his interlocutor, invites him to identify the stakes of his discourse, to conceptualize it by distinguishing key terms in order to implement them, to problematize it through a critical perspective, to universalize its implications. For the sake of comparison, this practice has the specificity of inviting the subject to move away from a mere sensation to allow him a rational analysis of his speech and of himself, a sine qua non condition for deliberating on the cognitive and existential stakes which must be made explicit at first. The removal from oneself that this unnatural activity presupposes, for which it requires the assistance of a specialist, poses a certain number of difficulties which we shall here attempt to analyze here.
Beyond the interest in philosophical practice, there is a regular predominance, at least temporarily, of a negative feeling in the subject, which is most frequently expressed – during the philosophical consultations as well as during the group reflection workshops – as an expression of frustration. First, the frustration of the interruption: since a philosophical conversation is not the place of release or of conviviality, a misunderstood and long speech, or one which ignores the interlocutor, must be interrupted; if it does not feed in the dialogue directly, it is of no use for the interview and has no place in the context of the exercise. Second, the frustration associated with harshness: it is more a matter of analyzing speech than pronouncing it, and everything we have said can be used ‘against us’. Thirdly, the frustration of slowness: it is no more a question of provoking accumulations and jostling of words, we must not be afraid of silences, nor of stopping on a given word in order to fully apprehend its substance, in the double meaning of the term apprehend: to capture and to dread. Fourth, the frustration of betrayal, again in the double meaning of this term: betrayal of our own word which reveals what we do not want to say or know and betray our word that does not say what we mean. Fifth, the frustration of being: not being what we want to be, not being what we believe to be, being dispossessed of the illusory truths that we maintain, consciously or not, sometimes for a very long time, about ourselves, our existence and our intellect.
This multiple frustration, sometimes painful, is not always clearly expressed by the subject. If he is somewhat emotional, susceptible or unwilling to analyze, he will not hesitate to lambaste censorship, or even oppression. “You prevent me from speaking”, while long unused silences, unoccupied by speech, periodically punctuate that same speech which has difficulty in finding itself. Or, “You want me to say what you want”, whereas at each question the subject can answer what suits him, only to the risk of engendering new questions. Initially, frustration often expresses itself as a reproach, however, by becoming verbalized, it makes it possible to become an object for itself; it allows the subject who expresses it to become conscious of himself as an external character. On the basis of this observation, he becomes able to reflect, to analyze his being through testing, to better understand his intellectual functioning, and he can then intervene on himself, both on his being and on his thought. Certainly, the passage through the moment, or through certain moments, imbued with psychological overtones, is difficult to avoid, without, however, dwelling upon it too long, for it is a matter of passing quickly to the subsequent philosophical stage, by means of the critical perspective and by attempting to define a problem and some issues at stake.
Our working hypothesis consists precisely in identifying certain elements of subjectivity, snippets that could be called opinions, intellectual opinions and emotional opinions, in order to take the opposite and to experience ‘other’ thought. Without it, how do we learn to voluntarily and consciously leave conditioning and predetermination? How to emerge from the pathological and the pure felt? Moreover, it may happen that the subject does not have the capacity to carry out this work or even the possibility of considering it, for lack of distance, lack of autonomy, insecurity or because of some strong anxiety, in which case we may not be able to work with him. Just as the practice of a sport requires some minimal physical dispositions, philosophical practice, with its difficulties and demands, requires some minimal psychological dispositions, below which we cannot work.
The exercise must be practiced in a minimum of serenity, with the various pre-conditions necessary for this serenity. Too much fragility or susceptibility would prevent the process from taking place. From the way our work is defined, the causality of a lack in this field is not within our purview, but that of a psychologist or a psychiatrist. By limiting ourselves to our function, we cannot go to the root of the problem, we could only notice and draw consequences. If the subject does not seem to be able to practice the exercise, even though he feels the need to reflect on himself, we will encourage him to move rather towards psychological consultations or at the very least towards some other types of philosophical practices, more ‘flowing’. To conclude, as far as we are concerned, as long as it remains limited, the psychological passage has no reason to be avoided, since subjectivity does not have to play the role of a scarecrow with sparrows, even if a certain philosophical approach, rather academic, considers this individual reality as an obstruction to philosophizing. The formal and chilly philosopher is afraid that, by rubbing against it, the distanciation necessary for philosophical activity is thus lost, whereas we take the option of making it emerge.
Speech as a pretext
One aspect of our practice which is problematic for the subject is the relationship to speech which we are trying to set up. Indeed, on the one hand, we ask the subject to sacralize speech, since we allow ourselves to carefully weigh together the least term used, since we allow ourselves to dig from within, together, the expressions used and the arguments put forward, to the point of making them sometimes unrecognizable for their author, which will cause him from time to time to scream to scandal on seeing his word thus manipulated. And, on the other hand, we ask him to desacralize speech, since the whole of this exercise is composed only of words and that whatever the sincerity or the truth of what it advances: it is simply a matter of playing with the ideas, without necessarily adhering to what is said. Only the coherence, the echoes that are reflected in words between each other, interest us, the mental silhouette that emerges slowly and imperceptibly. We simultaneously ask the subject to play a simple game, which implies a distancing from what is conceived as the real, and at the same time to play with words with the greatest seriousness, with the greatest application, with more efforts than he generally puts in constructing his discourse and in analyzing it.
Here, truth goes masked. It is no longer a truth of intention, it is no longer sincerity and authenticity, it is a requirement. This requirement obliges the subject to make choices, to assume the contradictions unveiled by working on the clutter of speech, even if to carry out radical frontal reversals, even if to move abruptly, even if refusing to see and to decide, even if one were to be silent before the many cracks which allow us to envisage the most serious abysses, the fractures of the self, the gaping of being. No other quality is necessary here in the interrogator and, little by little, in the subject, except that of a policeman, of a detective who tracks down the slightest failures of speech and behavior, which demands one to account for each act, for each place and every instant.
Of course, we may be mistaken in the fact that the discussion has changed, which remains the prerogative of the interrogator, the undeniable power that he has and must assume, including his indisputable lack of neutrality despite his efforts in that sense. The subject may also be ‘misled’ in the analysis and ideas he puts forward, influenced by the questions he is subjected to, blinded by the convictions he wishes to defend, guided by biases for which he has already opted-in and on which he would perhaps be incapable of deliberating: ‘over interpretations’, ‘misinterpretations’ or ‘sub-interpretations’ are flourishing. No matter these mistakes, apparent mistakes or alleged mistakes. What matters to the subject is to stay alert, to observe, to analyze and to become aware; his mode of reaction, his treatment of the problem, his way of reacting, his ideas that emerge, his relation to himself and to the exercise, everything must here become a pretext for analysis and conceptualization. In other words, making mistakes here does not make much sense. It’s all about playing the game, practicing gymnastics. What matters is only to see and not to see, consciousness and unconsciousness. There are no more good and bad answers, but there is ‘seeing the answers’, and if there is deception, it is only in the lack of fidelity of the word towards itself, not anymore in relation to some distant truth pre-written on the background of a starry sky or in some subconscious shallows. Nevertheless, this fidelity is doubtless a more terrible truth than the other, more implacable: it is no longer possible to disobey, with all the legitimacy of this disobedience. There can only be blinding.
Pain and epidural
The subject quickly becomes aware of the issues at stakes in the case. A sort of panic can thus set in. For this reason, it is important to install various types of ‘epidural’ for the ongoing delivery. First, the most important, the most difficult and the most delicate, remains the indispensable dexterity of the interrogator, who must be able to determine when it is appropriate to press an interrogation and when it is time to pass on, when it is time to say or to propose rather than to question, when it is time to alternate between the rough and the generous. It is a judgment not always easy to emit, because we easily allow ourselves to be carried away in the heat of action, by our own desires, those wanting to go to the end, to arrive at a certain place, those linked to fatigue, linked to despair, and many other such personal inclinations.
Second, the humor, the laughter, related to the playful dimension of the exercise. They induce a sort of ‘letting go’ which allows the individual to free himself from his existential drama and to observe without pain the derisory of certain positions to which he sometimes clings with a touch of ridicule, when it is not in the most blatant contradiction with himself. Laughter releases tensions that otherwise could completely inhibit the subject in this highly corrosive practice.
Third, the duplication, which allows the subject to come out of himself, to consider himself as a third person. When the analysis of one’s own discourse goes through a perilous moment, when the judgment encounters issues that are too heavy to bear, it is useful and interesting to transpose the case studied to a third person by inviting the subject to visualize a film, to imagine a fiction, to hear his story in the form of a fable. ‘Suppose you read a story where it is said that…’ ‘Suppose you meet someone, and all you know about him is that…’ This simple narrative effect allows the subject to forget or relativize his intentions, his desires, his wills, his illusions and disillusions, in order to deal solely with speech, as it arises during the discussion, allowing it to perform its own revelations without permanently erasing it by heavy suspicions or with patent accusations of insufficiency and betrayal.
Fourth, the conceptualization, the abstraction. By universalizing what tends to be perceived exclusively as a dilemma or as a purely personal issue, by problematizing it, by dialectizing it, the pain gradually diminishes as the intellectual activity begins. Philosophical activity itself is a sophrology, a ‘consolation’ of sort. It was considered as such by the Ancients, like Boethius, Seneca, Epicurus or more recently by Montaigne. It is a balm which allows us to better consider the suffering intrinsically linked to human existence, and ours in particular.
Some additional exercises are very useful for the reflection process. For example, the exercise of the connection. It allows the discourse to emerge from its ‘flow of consciousness’ side which functions purely through free associations, by abandoning to the darkness of the unconscious the articulations and joints of thought. The link is a concept all the more fundamental because it deeply touches the being, since it links the different facets, the different registers. A ‘substantial link’, says Leibniz. ‘What is the connection between what you are saying here and what you are saying there?’ Apart from the contradictions which will be revealed by this interrogation, so will the ruptures and jumps which signal nodes, blind points, whose conscious articulation allows the discourse to work closely with the spirit of the subject. This exercise is one of the forms of the ‘anagogical’ approach, which makes it possible to go back to unity, to identify the anchoring, to update the point of emergence of the thought of the subject, even if only to later criticize this unity, even if it is necessary to modify this anchoring. It makes it possible to establish a sort of conceptual map defining a pattern of thought.
Another exercise is that of ‘true speech’. It is practiced when a contradiction has been detected, insofar as the subject accepts the term ‘contradictory’ as an attribute of his thought, which is not always the case: certain subjects refuse to envisage it and deny, by principle, the mere possibility of a contradiction in their speech. By asking which one is the true discourse – even if, at the generally staggered moments in which they are spoken, they are expressed as sincerely as the other – the subject is invited to justify two different positions which are his, to evaluate their perspective, to compare their relative merits, to deliberate in order to finally decide in favor of the primacy of one of the two perspectives, a decision which will lead him to become aware of his own functioning and of the fracture which animates him. It is not absolutely necessary to decide, but it is advisable to encourage the subject to risk it, for it is very rare if not impossible to meet a real lack of preference between two distinct visions, with the epistemological consequences which are derived from it. The notions of ‘complementarity’ or of ‘simple difference’ commonly used in everyday language, although they hold their share of truth, often serve to erase the real, somewhat conflicting and tragic, stakes of any singular thought. The subject may also try to explain the reason of the discourse which is not the ‘true’ one. Often, it will correspond to the expectations, moral or intellectual, which he believes to be perceiving in society, or even to a desire which he considers illegitimate; a discourse revealing of a perception of the world and of a relation to authority or to reason.
Another exercise, that of ‘order’. When the subject is asked to give reasons, explanations, or examples of any of his words, he will be asked to assume the order in which he enumerated them. Especially the first element of the list, which will be related to the subsequent elements. Using the idea that the first element is the most obvious, the clearest, the safest and therefore the most important in his mind, he will be asked to assume this choice, usually unconscious. Often, the subject will rebel to this exercise, refusing to assume the choice in question, denying this offspring born in spite of himself. By agreeing to assume this exercise, he will have to account for the presuppositions contained in a particular choice, whether he adheres to it explicitly, implicitly or not at all. At worst, as with most consultation exercises, it will accustom him to decode any advanced proposition, in order to grasp its epistemological content and to glimpse the concepts conveyed, even if would dissociates himself from the idea somehow.
Universal and singular
On the whole, what do we ask of the subject who wishes to question himself, the one who wishes to philosophize from and about his own existence and to think about himself? He must learn to read, to read himself, to learn to transpose his thoughts and to learn to transpose himself through himself; a duplication and alienation which require the loss of self through a passage to infinity, by a leap into pure possibility. The difficulty of this exercise is that it will always be a matter of erasing something, of forgetting, of momentarily blinding the body or the mind, the reason or will, desire or morality, pride or placidity. In order to do this, the speech of occasion, the speech of circumstance, the speech of space-filling or of appearance must be silenced: either the word assumes its charge, its implications or its content, or it learns to be silent. A word that is not ready to assume its own being, in all its scope, a word that is not eager to become conscious of itself, no longer has to present itself to the light, a game in which only the conscious has the right of city, theoretically and tentatively at least. Obviously, some will not want to play the game, considered too painful, the word here being too heavily charged with meaningful stakes.
By forcing the subject to select his speech, by referring him back to the image he deploys, through the reformulation tool, it is a question of installing a procedure in which the speech will be the most revealing possible. This is what happens through the process of universalization of the particular idea. Of course it is possible and sometimes useful to follow the paths already traced, for example by quoting authors, but it is then the rule to assume the content as if it were exclusively ours. Although the authors can serve to legitimize a fearful position or to trivialize a painful position. Moreover, what are we trying to do, if not to find in each singular discourse, as unpopular as it may be, the great problems, stamped and codified by illustrious predecessors? How is articulated, in everyone, the absolute and the relative, monism and dualism, body and soul, analytic and poetic, finite and infinite, etc. This happens at the risk of creating a feeling of treason, for one can hardly bear to see his cherished word treated thus, even by oneself. It creates a feeling of pain and of dispossession, like the one who would see his body being operated upon even though all physical pain would have been annihilated. Sometimes, sensing the consequences of an interrogation, the subject will try by all means to avoid answering. If the interrogator persists in a roundabout way, a sort of answer will doubtless emerge, but only at the moment when the stake has disappeared behind the horizon, so much so that the subject, reassured by this disappearance, will not know how to establish a link with the initial problem. If the interrogator recapitulates the steps in order to re-establish the thread of the discussion, the subject can then accept or not to see, as the case may be. It is a crucial moment, although the refusal to see can sometimes be only verbal: the path cannot have failed to trace some kind of imprint in the mind of the subject. By a purely defensive mechanism, the latter will sometimes try to verbally make any work of clarification or explanation impossible. But he will not be less affected during his reflections later on.
Accepting the pathology
As a conclusion on the difficulties of philosophical consultation, let us say that the main test lies in the acceptance of the idea of pathology taken in the philosophical sense. Indeed, any singular existential posture, a choice that is more or less consciously made over the years, for many reasons makes the impasse on a certain number of logics and ideas. Basically, these pathologies are not infinite in number, although their specific articulations vary enormously. But, for those who experience them, it is difficult to conceive that the ideas on which they center their existence are reduced to the simple, almost predictable, consequences of a chronic weakness in their capacity for reflection and deliberation. Yet, is not the ‘thinking by oneself’ advocated by many philosophers an art that is worked and acquired, rather than an innate talent, a given, which would no longer have to reflect back unto itself? It is simply a matter of accepting that human existence is in itself a problem, burdened with dysfunctions which nevertheless constitute its substance and dynamics.